Nineteenth Century Numbers: British Association for Victorian Studies Annual Conference 2013

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'An Encyclopedia of Tales': Working on Longform Serial Fiction

G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London was published in penny numbers every week for the twelve years between October 1844 and September 1856. Divided into six two-volume series, each of which can be read independently, and running to ‘well over a million words’, Louis James suggests that it is ‘the longest British work of fiction [published] in the nineteenth century’. The central focus of my PhD thesis, it is certainly the longest text with which I have ever critically engaged. This primarily methodological paper considers the particular difficulties encountered in working on a (very) long-form serial narrative, and details some of the critical approaches I have found useful in doing so.
The Mysteries’ length and the circumstances of its composition means that its structure is not balanced and planned as one would expect of a shorter narrative. Reynolds did not embark on his project with an overall vision in mind: he couldn’t have known when he started the first series how long the work would continue. However, rather than reading for the flaws, omissions and inconsistencies in the text I have found it useful to focus on what the work actually does; the qualities that distinguish this kind of serial and the particular narrative and stylistic techniques with which Reynolds maintains coherence and sustains his radical political purpose.
In this paper I discuss several of these characteristic elements. In particular, I explore the use of parallels and repetition in Reynolds’s text, relating the Mysteries to the popular formula or genre fiction of the twentieth (and twenty-first) century; I have found work both on romance and detective novels helpful in informing my critical approach. John Cawelti’s observation that such books are typically read in serial has been especially useful; as with the Mysteries, formula fiction resists being read through the lens of its conclusion. I have also drawn on criticism of soap opera and TV drama. The construction of Reynolds’s text is in many ways similar to a contemporary television show, divided into ‘series’ which stand independently.
I find it interesting that these disparate genres are all in a ‘popular’ mode. D.A. Miller writes that Bleak House’s length inculcates an ‘ethic of endurance’ in its reader, suggesting that long works are somehow more demanding than short; but for contemporary critics, Reynolds’ choice of the serial form aligned him with the less experienced readers of the new mass market. If works like the short stories discussed in Leda’s paper have been associated with the limited horizons of their woman writers, the sprawling mass-market serial is condemned as untidy and ill-thought-through, symptomatic of a culture driven more by profit than by art. Challenging that perception, I hope to suggest in this paper some ways that we might come to value such unwieldy texts; to open a discussion about literary length, and what it means.
Period31 Aug 2013
Event typeConference
LocationLondon, United KingdomShow on map


  • serial fiction
  • G.W.M. Reynolds